Montgomery County legislators, concerned about what one apartment dweller called the "great fear of eviction," are attempting once again to get a new tenants' rights bill through the General Assembly.
The county House delegation has sent to county senators for consideration a bill that would allow tenants to appeal evictions to the Commission on Landlord-Tenant Affairs if they think they were ousted unfairly.
Without such a grievance route, many tenants are "literally left out in the cold without a roof over their heads," said Del. Ida G. Ruben (D-Montgomery) at a county delegation hearing this week.
Currently, landlords are not requrred to give reasons for evicting renters. Ousted tenants, if they went to go to the trouble, can go to court for reinstatement. But as Ruben explained it, this process is costly, formal and time-consuming and intimidates many tenants from ever trying.
"A tenant needs a place to go to voice a complaint without fear of a judge or a $100-an-hour attorney," said Amy Rhoe, a landord-tenant commissioner and a renter herself.
Under the proposal, the landlord must specify reasons for the "notice to quit," or the eviction. Any tenant can appeal to the commission for a hearing and expect to find out within seven days if the complaint is worth investigating. If the commission decides to hear the case, it must rule within another two weeks.
Landlords would still be able to evict a tenant for not keeping up rent payments or violating lease provisions. In addition, a landlord would be allowed to remove tenants if he has the "bona fide intention" of taking the dwelling out of the rental market for six months or more, or remodeling at least a fourth of the project's units, of occupying the unit himself or converting to condominiums.
Under present law, tenants in the county must initially be offered two year leases, but after the agreement expires landlords are only required to rent on a month-to-month basis.
In a county that has a slim 2 to 3 percent apartment vacancy rate and which has recently relaxed rent control, tenants, said Rhoe, "are scared to death. They won't come to tenants movement meetings because they are afraid their landlord will see them there."
Also, many tenants will not file complaints about discriminatory rental practices with the county's human relations commission because they can be spotted quickly by provoked landlords as "troublemakers," she said.
The county's Office of Landlord Tenant Affairs has limited powers to monitor grievances involving the 47,000 rental units in Montgomery. It can hear complaints about rent control, false advertising and some lease provisions, but so far it has not dealt with the growing eviction problem, according to Rhoe.
Even if the county's senators approve the bill, thus allowing its introduction in the General Assembly, proponents expect tough going and probable defeat.
Last year, a similar bill never got out of the House Judiciary Committee headed by the conservative Montgomery Del. Joseph E. Owens.
Several supporters of the bill were angry with the committee for the defeat and the committee's failure to give its reasons.
When pressed by his Montgomery colleagues this week, Owens stated the committee's position flatly: "The biggest problem with the bill is plain to see. You've done away with contracts."
By approving this bill 12-5, the delegates agreed to hold two related ones that would have placed the grievance route either in the district court or before the county council.
Some legislators believe these bills should be dealt with by the county council rather than the General Assembly. Sen Howard A. Denis (R-Montgomery) said, however, that "tenants don't feel the county council is with them now that they've terminated rent control."
Undoubtedly, tenants' rights issues will only burgeon as time passes. Rents are soaring, available units are fewer and with numerous condominium conversions, the county's 180,000 renters appear likely to seek more protection.
Some Montgomery delegates believe the situation is so critical that they chose to approve this bill, setting aside a less restrictive piece of legislation that would have had a better chance of moving successfully through the legislature.
"This is the same terrible bill it was last year," cried Del. Robert A. Jacques (D-Montgomery) when the more stringent bill was offered.
"That's your opinion," snapped Ruben. She argued that it was preferable because it gave "real recourse" rather than a "token" response to the eviction problem.
Last week, after considerable agonizing, the Montgomery delegates passed by a 10-7 vote a bill that would have allowed tenants to move out without notice and suffer no penalty if they found provisions in their leases that were illegal.
Tenants already have redress for illegal lease previsions. The county's senators agreed with OWens that the double whammy against landlords was a "silly idea" and quickly killed the bill this week.